FER FOCUS: The Need For Speed
When you want to go from 0-60 mph in less than three seconds, you’re not likely to choose the family sedan. When you want the same speed in your kitchens, you likely will turn to equipment that cooks faster, too. Accelerated cooking equipment has been around for a long time, but much of it—think clamshell griddles, impingement conveyor ovens and even microwave ovens—has limited applications. Equipment that is versatile enough to handle a broad array of menu items, such as a combi oven, may be too large for your menu application or concept.
Over the years, manufacturers have developed accelerated cooking equipment that fits on a countertop for operations that need the ability to cook a limited number of menu items quickly but don’t need a full array of kitchen infrastructure surrounding it. From conveyor pizza ovens to panini grills, more of these fast countertop units now come equipped with catalytic converters—which process effluent and can eliminate the need to operate under a hood—that lets you put them virtually anywhere you want (as long as the proper electric service is available).
Of course, if all you wanted was speed, you’d get a drag racer—you know, a clamshell griddle or microwave or conveyor oven. But microwave ovens can’t toast or brown foods, and a conveyor oven might not be the right equipment for warming breakfast sandwiches or cooking a salmon fillet. What you really want is a Porsche 918 plug-in hybrid supercar—a vehicle that can handle it all.
That’s where accelerated cooking ovens come in. These speed ovens combine cooking technologies—microwave with some combination of convection, impingement and/ or radiant heat—letting you cook a variety of foods incredibly quickly. Because most of them now incorporate that ventless technology, they’re perfect for applications that want to put out a relatively low volume of quality food but in very quick service times. Types of operations taking advantage of their capabilities include gas station/c-stores, bars, theaters, coffee shops, sandwich chains, hospitals with room service, hotels and more.
Speed Cooking 101
Cooking is all about the transfer of heat to food. The faster and more efficiently heat transfers, the faster food cooks. Cooking equipment transfers heat in three ways: radiant heat, convection and conduction. Microwave ovens are fast because they’re relatively efficient.
Microwaves (radio waves with a frequency of around 2.4 GHz) interact with dipole molecules—molecules with positive and negative charges at either end—typically found in water, fats and salt in food. Like dipole magnets you probably played with in school, the molecules start spinning when hit with microwaves. The friction created when these molecules spin against each other creates heat, and conduction helps transfer the heat throughout the food being heated.
While microwaves don’t cook food from the inside out, they do penetrate food more deeply than radiant or convection heat, so they cook food two to four times more quickly. Radiant and convection heat, on the other hand, heat a food’s surface first and the rest through conduction. Because the surface receives constant heat, it browns or toasts quickly. Microwaves, in other words, cook fast but can’t brown food. Radiant and convection heat brown foods but cook more slowly.
When you combine two or three of these cooking methods in one appliance, however, you get all of their advantages: fast cook times with the ability to brown or crisp foods. And their small footprints and ventless technology let you place them wherever you need them, provided you have 208/240V service. (Note: Ventless certification typically covers cooking of all foods except foods classified as fatty raw proteins, such as bone-in chicken with skin, raw hamburger meat, raw sausage, raw bacon, steaks, etc. You have to check your local codes and verify ventless allowances if you plan to cook these items.)
What To Look For
Manufacturers have added more varied models to their lines in recent years, providing a wider range of sizes and more application-specific models in addition to traditional speed ovens. As mentioned previously, one of the advantages of speed ovens over more specialized equipment is their versatility, especially if you plan to change or add menu items over time. Following are a few things to consider:
Size. A speed oven’s size matters not only in terms of its footprint and how much valuable real estate it occupies in your kitchen, but how much food it can cook at one time. Most makers offer more than one size, and even smaller units typically accommodate a one-fourth-size sheet pan. If you plan to offer a large 16-in. pizza, though, make sure the oven cavity is big enough.
Microwaves. One complaint about microwave ovens is that they heat food unevenly, especially if it’s not the same thickness throughout. Consumer microwave ovens often have turntables to counteract this problem. Commercial microwave ovens use wave guides or “stirrers” to bounce microwaves around the oven cavity. A couple of things to be aware of: If you want to use metal pans in your oven, look for models that launch microwaves from the top or sides of the unit, not the bottom. Top-mounted magnetrons “see” the metal pan as the floor of the oven. Side-mounted magnetrons launch microwaves over the metal as long as the pan isn’t too deep; sheet pans or 1.-in.-deep hotel pans are usually OK, but check with the manufacturer as metal can’t be used at all in a few models. Also, two magnetrons are better than one when it comes to speed and even cooking, even when they are top-mounted.
Convection heat. Convection heat transfers to food more quickly by forcing colder air away from the food’s surface and replacing it with hotter air. You typically have three options: Normal convection heat moves air around the oven cavity in much the same way as a regular convection oven, which cooks food two to four times faster than a standard oven. Impingement uses higher fan speeds to force hot air at the food through screens in jets. Drawbacks include noisier operation because of the fans and spotty browning depending on the food and application. Merrychef’s eikon e6 (not featured here), offers a third type of forced-air convection that moves air in planes at angles toward one another. The sheets of air collide above the food surface and spread around it, which the manufacturer says is as effective as impingement but doesn’t have the same drawbacks. A few models combine two of these styles of convection heat, such as convection and impingement, for more even cooking as well as increased speed. Again, this could be an advantage depending on your menu.
Radiant heat. Depending on the foods you cook, you may want radiant elements in your oven to further brown or crisp items such as pizza crust or proteins. The heat from the elements also speeds cooking.
Controlling Your Speed
With great power, of course, comes great responsibility. Fortunately, like car makers, speed-oven manufacturers have built-in sophisticated controls to make sure your employees can easily handle the driving characteristics of these units.
Cooking stages. Depending on the model and its cooking methods, a speed oven may offer three-, four- or even six-stage cooking to give you more precise control over microwave power and duration, temperature, fan speed or level and duration of convection and radiant heat. Depending on the model, the stages also will let you control heat from the top, bottom or sides of the oven. But manufacturer support and intuitive controls make even the most sophisticated models easy to operate.
Programmability. All models are programmable with the ability to retain from 300 to more than 1,000 “recipes.” All have factory-set presets, too, for generic items like “6-in. cheese pizza” or “breaded chicken sandwich.” But makers also provide culinary support with a staff that can help develop customized presets for your menu items. That way, employees simply push a button to cook a specific item, and it comes out the same consistently from store to store.
Oven controls. Depending on the model, ovens can be controlled and programmed either with a touch pad or touch screen. In both cases, models typically use icons in addition to step-by-step instructions so using and programming ovens is as intuitive for employees as possible. This level of sophistication also provides self-diagnostics, so the oven can alert you when it needs cleaning or service.
Communication. Most ovens have a USB port so you can download recipes to the oven or upload an oven’s self-diagnostics to a flash drive. A few models use Smart Cards, for which you may need a special port on your computer (although most printers seem to have them). A few models also offer Ethernet connectivity via LAN lines so you can tie all of the ovens in your stores to a central location. Although none offer it at the moment, you’ll also likely see Wi-Fi capability appear on these units soon.
Cleaning. Catalytic converters take care of most of the grease, smoke and odors generated by cooking. Like any cooking equipment, however, oven interiors should be cleaned at least daily. Manufacturers’ designs make it fairly easy to sweep out crumbs, and many models come with Teflon-coated plates covering interior surfaces that can be removed for cleaning and replacement when worn. Speed ovens have few other moving parts except fans, so other than wiping down the interior and exterior surfaces with mild detergent and cleaning air filters when necessary, maintenance is a breeze.
Street prices typically range from about $6,000-$10,000 depending on the model, but some operators say speed ovens cook so fast they can replace other equipment in the kitchen. When you consider a standard convection oven will set you back $5,000, the trade-off for the increase in speed of service isn’t bad at all, and it’s a bargain when you consider that you don’t necessarily need to install a hood.
FAST-COOK OVEN GALLERY
ACP MENUMASTER COMMERCIAL MXP22
Three heat sources, 2,000W forced convection, 2,200W, double-side oscillating microwaves and 3,000W infrared radiant from below, combine in an oven that cooks foods 15 times faster than conventional ovens. Convection heat, directed from the top down, has a temp range of 200°F-520°F. The MXP22 stores cooking cycles for up to 360 menu items, has 11 power levels (plus defrost mode) and can use as many as four cooking stages per cycle. The 1.38-cu.-ft. interior accommodates standard 1/4-size metal trays, pans and screens on a single rack in an interior cavity that measures 16-in.W x 15-in.D (height is 10 in.). Exterior dimensions are 25 1/8-in.W x 27½-in.D x 20 3/8-in.H.
The XL-400 is Alto-Shaam’s brand new accelerated oven with an internal catalytic converter, forced-impingement convection and dual-magnetron microwave technology. Unit measures 27 9/16-in.W x 28 3/4-in.D x 20 11/16-in.H on the exterior, 17 3/4-in.W x 13 13/16-in.D x 7 7/8-in.H on the interior. Made of heavy-duty, solid stainless construction with an insulated cooking chamber. Touchscreen control with graphical display operates in English, French and Spanish; stores up to 100 recipes that can be organized in groups or marked as favorites. Baking temperature has a maximum of 536°F. Variable fan speed adjusts from 10%-100% in 10% increments and microwave power adjusts from 0%-100%. Front accessible USB port allows easy control updating and recipe management. Smaller XL-300 unit also available.
BAKERS PRIDE XPM
Top and bottom air impingement and top and side microwaves (which can be run from 0%-100% in 10% increments) deliver quick heating, baking, browning and toasting on a wide variety of menu items. Temperature range of the XPM is 200°F-525°F. Unit holds up to 16 custom menu groups for access to 384 recipes/cooking cycles from the touch screen controls. Recipes can be built with up to 6 cooking stages each for precision food quality and finishes. Exterior dimensions to consider for ventless, countertop installation are 22 9/16-in.W x 30 3/16-in.D x 19 7/8-in.H. Insulated interior (doors stay cool to the touch) measures 15 5/8-in.W x 17 3/4-in.D x 7 15/16-in.H and delivers 1.27 cu.ft. of space. Unit holds a single rack and comes with 1 basket, 1 tray and 1 peel standard. Easy to maintain; top and bottom impingement plates remove for cleaning. Smaller XPS version available, as well.
MERRYCHEF EIKON E4S
The e4s accelerated cooking oven combines 3,200W convection heat directed through top and bottom impingement plates and microwave energy from 2 magnetrons for super-fast food production. The convection fan pulls air in through an air diffuser. This is then heated and returned to the cavity through upper and lower catalytic converters and forced through impingement plates to produce an even, convected-heat pattern and a crisp golden finish on foods. Temperatures adjust from 200°F-525°F. Microwave levels are adjustable from 5%-100% in 1% increments. The easyTOUCH icon screen controls allow easy, multi-stage programming. Each program offers up to 6 cooking-cycle stages with its own cook time, microwave power level, impingement settings and between-stage instructions. Exterior dimensions measure 23-in.W x 29½-in.D x 23 1/4-in.H. The interior chamber is 14 7/10-in.W x 14 3/5-in.D x 8 3/5-in.H.
Super-stylish Sota uses TurboChef’s patented technology to rapidly cook foods but in less space and using less energy than a traditional TurboChef. Standard features include dual, independently controlled motors for vertically directed air impingement from top and bottom. Top launched microwaves, and top-launched impinged air, is stirred to ensure even microwave and air distribution within the fully welded and insulated cook chamber. Sota’s Smart menu system can store up to 256 recipes and all information is updatable via a smart-card reader. Exterior dimensions—16-in.W x 29 4/5-in.D x 25-in.H—allow setup where space is very limited. Interior chamber, 12½-in.W x 10 1/2-in.D x 7 1/5–in.H, accommodates a 1/8-size sheet pan. Self-diagnostics monitor oven components and performance. Ovens are stackable with a stand.